Kobe Bryant was 37 years old when his second half started. Now, nearly three NBA seasons later, there are few reminders of his first half, of his five championships, 20 years and 33,643 points as an L.A. Laker laying around his spacious Orange County, CA, office.
Instead, Bryant’s deep-seated couch and coffee table are littered with piles of advanced copy books and worn classics. The shelving, which is on the other side of the half-court sized room, boasts more literature and a gleaming gold Oscar, which he won in 2018 for his poem-turned-animated-short Dear Basketball. Feet away, Bryant’s desk, which is wider than Shaq and heavier than Oliver Miller, is covered with a tree’s worth of white paper dotted with yellow highlighter and handwritten edits. The only other items on the surface are some pens, a laptop and family photos.
It is in this floor-to-ceiling windowed room, at the nerve center of Granity, his company, studio and, in a way, universe, that Bryant is sitting this morning. The CEO and president showed up at around 8 a.m., later than usual but early if you consider the fact that he and his wife Vanessa arrived home from the Academy Awards and Jay Z’s exclusive afterparty in the wee hours of morning. Still, Bryant is abound with energy.
“Listen to this,” he says. Bryant swipes away at his phone with a finger that was mangled on the court and pulls up the audiobook version of his upcoming novel, The Wizenard Series: Training Camp. “I think this one is going to win a Grammy.”
Boastful? Sure. Realistic? Definitely. After all, in Bryant’s time since retiring his jersey and picking up his pen, the creator has, among other things, won an Oscar, helped ESPN+ launch his show Detail, penned a New York Times bestseller (Mamba Mentality), turned a seed investment in sports drink BODYARMOR into a reported nine-figure value, and opened a sports training facility, Mamba Sports Academy. This list could go on for another 2,000 words.
Bryant has made clear on numerous occasions that he wants to accomplish more off the court than he ever did on it. He wants to make more money than he did hooping, win more awards now than then. He wants to leave a legacy that inspires children to dream and achieve. That’s why there aren’t many hoop mementos displayed in his office.
“A friend asked me the other day,” Bryant pauses, “‘Does it bother you that when Bianka [his 30-month-old daughter] grows up she will know you as a creator and producer and not a basketball player?’”
“I thought about it for a bit and said, Yeah, that’s true. She won’t know that part of my life, but that doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it excites me.”
Kobe Bryant has displayed a bit of a Midas touch since retiring. That, to an extent, is not shocking because his creative wins (Dear Basketball, Mamba Mentality, Detail) have largely targeted the sports-loving audience he won over as a player. Bryant’s next project constitutes a Celtics, circa 2008, sized challenge.
The Wizenard Series: Training Camp centers around a basketball team…and takes place in a mystical corner (called Dren) of a fantastical universe (known as Granity) and involves plenty of magic (termed Grana). Ostensibly, the novel—aimed at young adults—hinges on an otherworldly coach, Professor Rolabi Wizenard, turning confused teenagers into a successful team. On a deeper level, though, Wizenard is about internal conflict and raw emotion, about self-acceptance and growth.
Bryant did not write Wizenard. Wesley King, an acclaimed Young Adult fiction author, did. Bryant, however, imagined the story nearly three years ago and guided King throughout the process. To do so, the globetrotter pulled scenery from teen years spent around Philadelphia. Bryant also threaded characters together from wisps of former NBA coaches-slash-teammates. He also infused elements from one of his favorite Disney characters, Mary Poppins.
“What clicked for me was taking sports and making it something magical,” says Bryant, who notes that this combo rarely comes together in literature. “Within that, we try to teach kids through Wizenard how to process their inner emotions—good, bad, indifferent. We teach them compassion and empathy, work ethic and attention to detail. That is how I believe we should tell stories.”
Writing and publishing, especially in the YA fantasy genre, doesn’t work like pro basketball. In hoops, you typically practice and notice visible results, practice some more and, with some luck, contend for championships. In creating Wizenard, Bryant learned that writing comes in fits and starts—better some days, impossible on others—and that the publishing world operates in a very inflexible fashion. Bryant learned to deal with some of newness. He eventually, for instance, acclimated to the lack of tangible progress.
“Around us right now, it seems quiet but people are working,” says Bryant. The staff of Granity are grinding on the launch of Wizenard, as well as Bryant’s next book, podcast and show. “It’s more like work, chip away, chip away, boom, big milestone. Then chip, quiet, chip away again and here we are, a book is launching, a film. It sneaks up on you.”
Bryant could not sync with every aspect of his new world, though. Wizenard was tentatively slated to be released by a major publisher. Tight calendars and creative differences forced Bryant to pull back and, in very Mamba Mentality fashion, form a book publishing wing within Granity. The team, along the way, definitely learned some tough rookie publishing lessons, but Wizenard is here and it looks and reads just like Bryant envisioned.
If all of this sounds bold and daring—OK, crazy—that’s because it is. This isn’t the first time, though, Bryant has shot a 30-foot three with his off-hand. He did it in 1996, when he leaped from a suburban high school to the League. He did it when he transformed into “Black Mamba” and embraced the role of NBA villain. He did it when he demanded Nike make his signature sneaker into a lowtop. All of these gambits, and a high percentage of other ones, paid off. Soon, the results will be in on Kobe Bryant, fantasy world publisher, too.
“There will always be a little [stigma] because I’m known for basketball,” says the 15-time All-NBA team member. “If you look at the quality of the book, you’ll know I’m not playing around. If you look at the people I’ve hired for our publishing division, the writers, the editors, they are all heavyweights. When you look at that, you understand how serious we are.”
Bryant is not measuring the success of Wizenard or any of his upcoming books in dollars and cents, nor sales and reviews. He is not chasing invisible scoring titles or non-existent championships.
The goal of Wizenard, of Bryant’s new fantasy book due out mid-year, can’t be measured that way. The father of four girls—and hero/villain to thousands of other people—wants his tomes to expand the YA genre and to make reading more accessible to young athletes. He wants it to be taught in schools nationally and to affect change worldwide.
“To me,” says Bryant, “Wizenard is successful already. It’s different than sports. In sports, the objective is to win a championship. With this stuff, if one person touches that book and is impacted deeply, then that’s success.”
There is still a place for basketball in Bryant’s life.
Most noticeably, the former guard occasionally works out with an exclusive group of rising NBA and WNBA stars. “Players can call,” he says. “We can talk. If I have time, I’ll train them.”
Truth be told, despite their virality on IG and Twitter, those sessions are a rarity. Think hours, not days, this past summer. More notably, Bryant coaches Gigi—his 12-year-old daughter—and her AAU team. Now that team, and those young girls, practice under his tutelage five times a week.
On a recent school night, Coach Bryant and the group gathered at a nondescript OC gym. The team was getting together for a SLAM photo shoot. Practice, just this once, was postponed. The girls appeared delighted. New crisp reversible black-and-white MAMBA jerseys, with their individual names on the back, were handed out and immediately donned. Parents took pictures, as did a professional photographer. Little more than 20 minutes into the shoot, Bryant pulled the photographer, an old friend, aside and asked how much longer he needed. The team, he said, only had the gym reserved for two hours and Bryant had decided he wanted to get a practice in.
With an internal clock tick-ticking away, the photographer hurriedly snapped a few more shots, tore down a white seamless that was spilling onto the court and abruptly ended the shoot. It was time for the players to play, coaches to coach. Over the course of the next hour, Bryant and two other coaches ran an impromptu-yet-organized practice. The girls, accustomed to the routine and pace, ran through the workout with little wasted motion and even less wasted time.
They focused on their ability to finish around the rim, plus footwork and handles. At least twice, Bryant stopped everything and provided the entire team with a Detail-level lesson on ball movement and spacing. By the time the team started scrimmaging, it was obvious that Bryant was serious about teaching and the girls were equally serious about learning.
That’s not to say the girls are ready for DI ball. There is still a lot for them to learn as both individuals and a team. “You should have seen us six months ago,” says Bryant. “The girls are making incredible progress. Just wait until you see us in six years.”
Six years. That is what Bryant said. Six years, after which the entire roster will be college-aged. Six years after which the girls will be brimming full of Mamba Mentality and experts on the triangle. Six years, or more than a max-length contract, is how much time Coach Bryant has committed to this team and these girls.
To that end, Bryant is playing a long game with the team. That means not pointing out every little mistake, not correcting every lapse in the triangle, not attempting to teach them everything in mere months that it took him 40 years to learn.
“I have a year-by-year plan for them,” says Bryant. He cuts an imposing figure in a pair of signature black Nike Kobe ADs, black pants and Mamba-emblazoned top. “We are going to keep adding pieces on a schedule I’ve already mapped out.”
As much as writing gets his “juices flowing” and business deals keep his coffers full, Bryant still clearly loves the game that provided those opportunities. It’s hard, then, not to imagine him one day hopping in a helicopter, like he did during his latter years as a Laker, and guiding the current Lakers back to prominence. It’s even harder not to imagine his friends and Laker execs Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka not embracing his presence in the building. If not right now, when LeBron could likely use his guidance, then in six years when Gigi is off wearing a college uniform.
“The answer is no, I’m not doing it,” says Bryant. He cuts off any follow-up question and continues. “I’m not interested. It’s not even a couple years. I’m just not interested. I don’t want to be a GM. I don’t want to own a team. I don’t want to coach. I have no interest in any of that. That’s an easy answer for me.”
Kobe Bryant is busy with his business. Busy with his books. Busy with his little Mambas.
Tzvi Twersky is the Head of Basketball at Stance Socks and a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @ttwersky.
Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.